INDIANAPOLIS – When Tony Dungy discusses the Colts’ wide receivers, Marvin Harrison isn’t one of the first things he mentions.
Neither is Reggie Wayne. And Brandon Stokley isn’t either.
Dungy, entering his fifth season as the Colts’ head coach, said when looking at the team’s wide receiver position as a whole, the best way to illustrate the talent and depth at the spot isn’t who did play extensively this past season.
Best to look at who didn’t play much, Dungy said.
Troy Walters. Aaron Moorehead. John Standeford.
All three are talented players, Dungy said, and he said all three could play extensively on many NFL teams. Yet, because of the productivity, durability and consistency of the Colts’ top three receivers – Harrison, Wayne and Stokely – Walters, Moorehead and Standeford for the most part played sparingly.
As much depth as anywhere on the Colts’ roster, Dungy said.
“I think it’s one of our stronger positions, without a doubt,” Dungy recently said during an interview for a position-by-position series for Colts.com, a series that continues with this story on the team’s wide receivers.
“It’s not an area where we see any slowdown in productivity.”
And it’s an area at which Dungy said the Colts seem to have a solid future.
Harrison, a Pro Bowl selection the past seven seasons, caught an AFC-high 12 touchdown passes this past season, and at 33 years old, showed he still has speed to score from anywhere on the field.
Wayne, a five-year veteran, has improved in each NFL season, and the Colts recently signed him to a long-term deal. Stokley will return next season, as will Moorehead, Walters and Standeford.
That’s the sort of continuity and depth the Colts sought from the position for several seasons in the late 1990s and early in this decade – continuity and depth they have gotten the past three seasons, since Wayne and Stokley emerged as able complements to Harrison, who for nearly a decade has been one of the NFL’s top receivers.
“You’ve got guys who are playing at a high level and continuing to play at a high level, and you’ve got guys like Aaron Moorehead who played well for us in the past and who really hasn’t gotten a chance to play for us the last few years,” Dungy said. “You’ve got John Standeford, who really never got to play, and you’ve got Troy, who always plays well when he has the opportunity.
“I think it’s one position where we go very, very deep.”
Harrison, the Colts’ leader in receiving yards in nine of 10 NFL seasons, caught 82 passes this past season for a team-high 1,146 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 14 yards per reception, his highest average since 2001.
And throughout the season, Harrison showed big-play ability, and continued a knack for the big play at the big moment. In the Colts’ 26-7 regular-season victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, it was Harrison’s 80-yard touchdown pass on the Colts’ first offensive play that gave them early momentum.
Several weeks later, in a division-clinching victory over Jacksonville that also clinched home-field advantage, Harrison caught two first-half touchdown passes, the second of which was a 65-yarder that gave Indianapolis a 14-3 it never relinquished.
Harrison set an NFL record in 2002 with 143 receptions in a season, and while Dungy said a repeat of such a season is unlikely, he said that doesn’t mean Harrison couldn’t do it.
“He’s still the guy,” Dungy said. “People are doing a lot of things to take away our passing game and we’re seeing a lot of different types of coverages. If it were the same circumstances as five years ago, Marvin Harrison today could still have a 135-140 catch year.
“Our offense has evolved and we’ve gotten other guys who we’re comfortable getting the ball to. He’s probably never going to have that 140-catch year again, but I think he is still very well capable of it.”
As has been the case for the past several seasons, Dungy said Harrison’s value to the offense extends beyond his statistics. Teams defend the Colts differently when Harrison is playing than when he is not, and that creates opportunities for the Colts’ other
receivers and in the running game.
“For your No. 1 guy, a guy who gets so much attention, to have a 12-touchdown year and an 80-catch year – and have those big plays – that’s what he’s capable of,” Dungy said. “We just don’t force everything that way. We don’t move him around and try to create things for him. We just let it go in the flow.
“That’s why he’s going to be an 80-to-100-catch guy instead of a 120-catch guy.”
Wayne, the Colts’ first-round selection in the 2001 NFL Draft, continued his development into one of the NFL’s top receivers last season, catching 83 passes for 1,055 yards and five touchdowns. He became the first player other than Harrison to lead the Colts in receiving since Marshall Faulk in 1998, and after the season, he signed a long-term contract to remain with Indianapolis.
“He’s getting better,” Dungy said. “He knows now he’s going to get those opportunities. He’s enjoying the game and he’s having fun. He’s playing at a very, very high level. He’s gotten more productive every year. He’s gotten more comfortable in that role, of ‘I’m a guy who should catch the ball every week and should do well and I’ve gotten to be one of the leaders on the team.’’’
In recent seasons, Wayne has developed to the point where Colts quarterback Peyton Manning often has said he no longer enters a play with the idea of throwing to a certain receiver. Whereas Harrison once was the top option on a crucial play, Manning said he now throws to whatever receiver is open.
“Peyton has confidence in Reggie, but he has had that for some time,” Dungy said. “Another thing that happened this season was people did a lot to take away our inside receivers. They kind of copied New England and said, ‘We’re not going to let Brandon Stokley and (tight end/fullback) Dallas Clark get down the middle and get those big, 50-yard passes down the middle that make for quick strikes and quick touchdowns.’
“Because of that, it became, ‘Reggie’s the next guy.’ As much as Peyton developed the confidence in Reggie, I think it was maturity in Peyton to say, ‘OK, this is what’s happening. This is how they’re structuring their coverage. The guy who’s getting single-coverage is Reggie. That’s where the ball should go.’’’
If the restructuring of coverage against the Colts benefited Wayne, it did the opposite for Stokley, who a season before set career-highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. In 2004, Stokley – a 2003 free-agent signee from the Baltimore Ravens – caught 68 passes for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In 2005, with the Colts playing far more double tight-end formations, Stokley caught 41 passes for 543 yards and one touchdown.
“That’s one of the things people did, especially teams that played us the first time,” Dungy said. “They were so successful in 2004, our inside guys (Stokley and Clark), and we got so many piercing, big plays, that people said, ‘We’re not going to let that happen.’ That made other things in our offense more effective. It was hard for he and Dallas to have that type of 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season. But I think that’s OK.”
Stokley, even with the reduced receptions, was still effective, Dungy said. While he had nine games in which he had two or fewer receptions, he had four games with five or more receptions, including a five-reception, 122-yard game against eventual NFC Champion Seattle on December 24.
“You see certain games where people would play a little differently and you’d see the six-, seven-catch game again,” Dungy said. “He just didn’t have them as often.”
Walters, after playing just five games in 2004 after a preseason arm injury, played in all 16 this past season. He caught 14 passes for 152 yards and had eight receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown against Arizona in the season finale.
“Troy played the last game with Jim (Sorgi) and had a Marvin Harrison type day,” Dungy said. “He’s a guy who when he got the chance two years ago had days like this.
“He had quite a few. He just hasn’t had many opportunities.”
Moorehead, a 2003 free-agent signee from Illinois, played three games this past season, catching seven passes in the last two games for 75 yards.
Standeford, a free agent from Purdue, spent the season on the practice squad.